In today’s tense geopolitical environment, global powers are racing to develop advanced defense technologies, like hypersonic weapons, to keep pace with the rapid advancements being made in other countries – like China and Russia – and prepare for potential future combat scenarios.
With speeds faster than five times the speed of sound, critical hypersonic technologies have emerged as one of the Department of Defense’s top priorities today – and it’s no wonder why. Hypersonic missiles are expected to drastically increase the range, efficacy and speed of the United States’ air and missile defense capabilities.
However, due to high costs, supply chain hurdles, bureaucratic restrictions and tedious federal procurement processes, the U.S. has lagged behind in hypersonics development. The urgency of the situation has caused defense leaders, government officials and industry organizations to take accelerated action in fielding hypersonic weapons and defense capabilities that can solidify the country’s competitive edge and fortify the nation against threats as global tensions continue to rise.
Last month, Pentagon officials met with top defense company leaders to address some of the key challenges in hypersonics development and begin to make important steps forward in getting the technology into the hands of warfighters.
Where We Stand
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began a program in 2003 to design and test a hypersonic weapons platform. Though DARPA’s hypersonic technology vehicle prototype failed to perform as hoped in the testing phase, the program marked a milestone in the United States’ hypersonics development.
Currently, U.S. military service branches are developing two hypersonic weapons with the intent of enhancing the country’s strike capabilities in contested environments. The Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon is nearing the end of its development phase and is on track to be fielded by fiscal year 2023.
Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, director for hypersonics, directed energy, space and rapid acquisition in the office of the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, emphasized that while speed is key in hypersonics development, the testing phase is a critical component of the process that can’t be skipped over.
“We just don’t show up with that shiny piece of equipment; it has to be ready, it has to be trained and I’m the one who actually signs the document that says it’s safe enough for a soldier to use,” he told Defense News. “It’s not just the design work, it’s the safety work and all the testing that validates objectively that the weapon system is safe to use.”
The Navy and the Air Force are also working to develop their own hypersonic systems. The Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike is an intermediate-range hypersonic weapon that utilizes the same glide body and missile stack as the Army’s LRHW. The Air Force’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon program aims to purchase 12 missiles in 2022.
In December 2021, the Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency tapped L3Harris Technologies and Northrop Grumman to develop missile-tracking satellite prototypes as part of the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program which aims to detect adversarial hypersonic glide vehicles.
The United States’ hypersonics programs recently received a much-needed $2.5 billion funding boost, approved in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, that allows industry and government to accelerate hypersonic technology development.
Even still, with a more appropriate budget, defense agencies must work to overcome production capacity limitations and other hurdles in order to keep pace with Russia and China – which have already fielded difficult-to-track hypersonic glide vehicles in 2019 and 2020, respectively – in hypersonic development.
Register now to hear from Thurgood and other government and industry leaders as they discuss the paramount topic of hypersonic weapons as a crucial component of the United States’ defense strategy today.